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Dave Williams - Most issues still on table for legislature

The 2008 version of the Georgia General Assembly seems hellbent on atoning for last year's historically long session.

In contrast to 2007, when lawmakers took off weeks at a time because of a snag in PeachCare funding, the legislature has been rolling through its 40-day schedule with few breaks.

As the session reached the halfway point last Wednesday, the House and Senate already had passed Georgia's first statewide water management plan.

Other major issues on the table this year - including tax reform, transportation funding and trauma care - were well into the legislative pipeline.

"We're pleased with the pace of the session," said House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island. "We're moving the key bills to the floor."

But the breakneck speed with which lawmakers are disposing of vital issues is leaving some unhappy campers.

Legislators from outside of metro Atlanta complained when House and Senate leaders shoved the water plan through during the session's first week.

Although the Senate technically had to adopt the House version of the plan late last month before Gov. Sonny Perdue could sign it, the debate was essentially done by the time the session was five days old.

"That train was leaving the station before my ticket was even punched," said Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome.

Smith and other lawmakers representing districts downstream of Atlanta say their concerns that the plan could turn into a water grab by the rapidly growing metro region got short shrift from legislative leaders intent on passing it quickly and getting it out of the way.

"We could have taken more time," Smith said. "There was a false sense that something had to be done in the first days of the (session)."

Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon, said the same sense of urgency is producing an unnecessarily slapped together tax reform measure.

He said House Speaker Glenn Richardson's rush to get his plan to abolish school property taxes through the General Assembly in time for Georgians to vote on it this fall could leave some glaring shortcomings.

For one thing, Brown questions whether the tax cuts Richardson, R-Hiram, envisions in what he once touted as a revenue neutral bill would leave state government without enough money to provide vital services.

"I'm afraid we'll end up with a bill with unintended consequences," Brown said.

But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Larry O'Neal, R-Bonaire, said he has never seen legislation more "vetted" than the speaker's plan.

O'Neal's committee approved the plan overwhelmingly last week. It's expected to hit the House floor this week.

The high-profile issue that drew the most widespread support during the session's first half was a proposal to create a statewide trauma care network.

About $53 million the governor requested in the mid-year budget to jump start the initiative has received smooth sailing.

"There seems to be little disagreement that we want to put significant resources into trauma care," said Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

But as the session rolls into the second half, two sticky issues are threatening to slow the pace, including education funding.

The House and Senate are grappling over whether to go along with Perdue's recommendation to rein in the growth of the state's equalization formula by $30.7 million.

The House has voted to put the money back, while the Senate wants to postpone the debate until the legislature takes up the 2009 budget.

The stakes are high for 16 suburban school districts that would get less equalization funding if the governor gets his way. More than half of the funds would go to Gwinnett County Public Schools, Georgia's largest school district.

Still to come is a battle over transportation funding.

The Senate already has passed and the full House is about to take up competing proposals to raise sales taxes, subject to voter approval, and dedicate the additional revenue to highway and transit improvements.

Both are constitutional amendments, so they need two-thirds majorities in both chambers.

Standing in the way are conservative anti-tax Republicans and Democrats.

"We certainly are not in favor of creating any new taxes," Brown said.

In fact, House Democrats are expected to introduce legislation this week to raise more money for transportation with existing taxes. The proposal would take the portion of the state gasoline tax that now goes into the general fund and dedicate it to needed transportation projects.

The down side is it wouldn't raise nearly as much revenue as the two sales tax proposals.

But that doesn't discourage Brown.

"It may be less," he said. "But it also suggests we're going to have to do a better job managing what we have and target it better."

Dave Williams can be reached at dave.williams@rockdalecitizen.com.